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Art & artists

Leonardo: where does myth end and man begin?

— April 2014

Article read level: Academic

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Cover of The Lives of Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci did not die in the arms of François I – separating fact from fiction in the life of a great artist

The Lives of Leonardo edited by Thomas Frangenberg and Rodney Palmer

The book’s blurb says: ‘This book explores biographical, fictional and psychological approaches to Leonardo. What light do these different narratives shed on Leonardo himself, and on the cultures in which they were written?  Why has Leonardo’s life story attracted so much attention? How did anecdotes about Leonardo affect Leonardesque art theory? When and why were myths of Leonardo created, and in what ways have they biased responses to his art?’

Charles Hope argues that much of Vasari’s  Lives was not written by the man himself and that much of the life of Leonardo, in particular, was a fabrication ─ especially his death in the arms of the French king, François I, which exerted a particular appeal to 19th-century artists. Unlike the work of Raphael or Michelangelo, much of Leonardo’s work was simply out of sight and so writers were forced to work from gossip.

It would be misplaced to think of Vasari, irrespective of who actually wrote the Lives, writing history in the same way as a modern academic. He was an artist concerned to promote the interest and importance of his practice. From this point of view, Leonardo must have been something less than a role model. True, he was popular at the various courts he serviced; one could always count on him for something useful, imaginative or bizarre. But he was not a person who would deliver the goods on time, unlike Vasari himself. He was too much of a day dreamer. Unlike Raphael and Michelangelo  he left no glorious public displays of his work until that was done on his behalf by Napoleon, who looted his paintings for the Louvre.

The publication of Leonardo’s Trattato (Treatise on Painting) was a gift to the French academicians, who wanted to establish rules for judging art. They didn’t want his biography, at the outset, because they didn’t need it. As a rule-book they discovered that it was not fit for purpose and decided that the best way to learn about art was by dissecting its best practice in front of live paintings. Significantly, when John Evelyn chose a text on painting to translate, for the Royal Society’s Trades Project, he selected Fréart de Chambray’s Idea of the Perfection of Painting and not Leonardo’s Treatise. An abbreviated version of Vasari’s biography of Leonardo entered England through the publication of another FRS, William Aglionby, in Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues (1685).

Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting was published in England in 1721 to promote the cause of science amongst artists and allied practitioners. He was honoured as a precursor to Newton and his rather chaotic text was compared to Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum (1627), a dated but still useful collection of observations. It wasn’t a great success and Leonardo’s work as a scientist  was most effectively established in the public’s imagination by the acclaim given to his manuscripts rediscovered in the late 18th century. It was only then that he became celebrated as a genius.

Paul Taylor reports on how Vasari’s Lives were imported and transformed in the Low Countries and, en passant, we learn of Rembrandt’s response to an engraving after Leonardo’s Last Supper. Juliana Barone offers a fascinating account of the first publication of Leonardo’s Trattato della Pittura (Treatise on Painting) in Paris in 1651. While the French version did not contain a biography, the Italian did and much else besides.

Giovanna Perini Folesani offers an illuminating account of the development of Leonardo scholarship in Italy in the 18th century; Thomas Frangenberg does the same for German-speaking countries before 1800. Matthew Craske writes the largest essay, on the ideas surrounding the publication of the English version of the biography in early and late 18th-century England. He also offers a convincing case for the identity of its anonymous translator, one John Hughes. Rodney Palmer discusses Leonardo’s ‘nonconformist choices and his legendary death’. Michela Passini offers an intriguing account of differences between the literary and historical Leonardo in France around the turn of 19th century. Julia Friedman does the same for Leonardo in fin-de-siècle Russia casting particular light on Dmitrii Merezhkovsky’s The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, which was to have a significant influence on Freud’s analysis of the artist, discussed in the next essay by Bradley Collins. David Ekserdjian offers a readable account of Renato Catellani’s Italian film Leonardo. Martin Kemp concludes by asking whether biographies and portraits matter.

By the end of the book the reader has a minutely detailed map of the terrain originally sketched out in rough by A. Richard Turner in Inventing Leonardo: The Anatomy of a Legend (1995). The authors have accomplished a major service to Leonardo scholarship and are to be commended for their rigorous analyses of their material. One does, though, have the feeling that, at times, sight of the wood has become lost for fascination with the trees. As Passini and Friedman bring out very well, there are contrasts to be drawn between literary portraits of Leonardo and historical studies.

Although the questions posed on the book jacket’s blurb are interesting, the answers are given with the kind of copious detail that would interest the specialist more than the general reader. As befits a volume from the Warburg Institute we learn a great deal about intellectual history rather than art history as such.

The Lives of Leonardo,  edited by Thomas Frangenberg and Rodney Palmer, is published by the Warburg Institute – Nino Aragno Editore 2013. 266 pp. 33 mono illus. ISBN 978-1-908590-442 ISSN 1352-9986


Richard Woodfield
Editor of the Journal of Art Historiography

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